In 1989 HBO debuted Tales From the Crypt,
a horror-anthology show with an unprecedented amount of tits, gore,
budget, and bad puns. Based on a variety of titles from EC Comics, the
episodes ranged from silly to creepy to horrible. And we’re going to
review every single one of them.
Lower Berth (2.14)
“Whoever takes the family jewels…loses theirs?”
WHAT IS IT?
A deformed carnival freak falls in love with a mummy. Goddamn, do I love EC.
The episode was penned by Crypt reliable Fred Dekker, the fourth of five Tales From the Crypt scripts he would write. Behind the camera is Kevin Yagher, mostly known for his make-up and effects work and being the designer of Chucky from Child’s Play. He’s also an apparent nepotist, casting his older brother in the lead role of a two-faced freak who can’t speak. Rounding out the relatively large cast of characters, we have Lewis Arquette (Tango & Cash, father of Patricia, Roseanna, and David) as a rough around edges carnival barker, Henry Morton (Carrie, High Plains Drifter) as a rough around the edges freak owner, Mark Rolston (Aliens, Lethal Weapon 2) as a smooth-talking gambler who, deep down, has some pretty rough edges.
HOW IS IT?
Schizophrenic. This episode probably had one of the largest budgets of any Crypt episode we’ve covered yet. The carnival sets are vast and authentic, lavishly decorated, and there are swarms of extras everywhere. It’s a handsomely shot and edited, with atmosphere to spare and even the organ-grinder music seems to fit the tone of the show for once. Unfortunately the tone doesn’t match the material. All this atmosphere, all these elaborate sets, all this eerie mood don’t work for a tale as lurid and weird as this, and the end result is a muddled mix of high brow and low brow that doesn’t gel at all.
The episode opens on a foggy night in a carnival in some unnamed country in some vague past era. Some accents sound vaguely English and some accents sound vaguely American, so I’ll assume it takes place in Kevin Reynolds’ Nottingham. In this foggy carnival is a barker named Ernest Feeley (Lewis Arquette), sensationalizing a captive audience with the carnival’s impressive freak show roster, which includes a family of midgets and a woman who weighs over 450 pounds! But on top of TLC’s Friday Night Line-up, this particular freak show has an ace in the hole: Enoch, the man with two faces. Enoch’s the kind of hideous mutant you often see in stories like this. He longs for simple things, like a family, a home of his own. Nothing fancy, just somewhere in some small town, maybe a place where he doesn’t live in a cage and shit on newspapers.
His desire for release leads to a lot of escaping from his cage, which makes his manager/slave-master Mr. Sickles angry at him and Ernest Feeley angry at Mr. Sickles. Sickles tries to pull the “you need me more than I need you” on Feeley, but it’s not true and they both know it. Like any other precious angel, Enoch doesn’t have much time left on this Earth before he dies and returns to heaven, preferably to some out of the way section of paradise so he doesn’t frighten all of the nice people. Sickles gets drunk and alleviates his anger by beating the shit out of Epoch; probably the only scene where I really bought him as a father figure. Later that night, though, Sickles gets a visit from a dashing stranger named Dr. Zachary Cling, beautifully portrayed by the great Mark Rolston. Mark Rolston can do charming in his sleep but he imbues Dr. Cling with a particularly wormy quality that makes him both ingratiating and egregious.
It would seem that Dr. Cling, in his various illicit pursuits, got a hold of an ancient mummy, having the good luck of running into a poker-playing archeologist on a losing streak. As much as I like the idea of archeologists lugging mummies around with them in crowded casinos and dive bars, this seems unlikely, to say the least. The mummy has a giant bejeweled necklace around her neck, which catches Sickles’ eye until Cling quickly dismisses it as phony and worthless. Anyway, Dr. Cling agrees to let Sickles use the decaying damsel in return for a 60/40 split of the profits. He says he’s letting Sickles front the whole thing because he needs to “keep a low profile”, but neglects to really give a reason why. Hmmm. Either way, Sickles agrees and, billed as “Myrna the Egyptian Slave Girl” the mummy is a great success, drawing attention from the crowds but, more importantly, from Enoch. In a really delightful and odd montage of opening curtains, the lumpy chimp-man goes from a fascination with to a full-blown love for a decaying mummy. Holy fuck, read that last sentence again.
At this point the perspective shifts from Sickles to Enoch, in what I like to think of as The Elephant Man portion of the show. It’s a noble goal, but Kevin Yagher is no David Lynch and, for that matter, his older brother is no John Hurt. The make-up would be pretty good if Enoch was some kind of monster attacking quickly, from shadows. But in lingering close-ups meant to convey Enoch’s pain and loneliness, an extra rubber face on the side of his head, with an obviously motorized mouth slowly moving up and down can only elicit laughter. It doesn’t help that the make-up renders his facial expressions more inert than 50 Cent, and with the same slurred and incomprehensible speech. There’s an extended sequence in which a little girl in braids comes by and treats him tenderly because A) children are perfect and B) they needed to shove a Frankenstein reference in there somewhere. Her mom finds her and quickly pulls her away, rightly horrified that her daughter was wandering around a freak show unattended. Before she leaves for good, she gives Enoch her doll, which he cradles like the baby he so desires. Maslow might have some issues with Enoch’s hierarchy of needs, but the heart wants what it wants. Unfortunately Sickles sees this doll, sees the mummy, and puts two and weird together. He’s about to beat the ambition out of Enoch when he notices a headline on the bottom of his cage reading “Priceless Egyptian Mummy Stolen”. Ah ha!
Dr. Cling is busy playing poker with the midget family when Sickles confronts him about his obvious lie. They move to a nice quiet tent, where Sickles threatens Cling with a pair of hedge-trimmers. Cling explains the whole story; He stole the mummy, intending to keep the giant necklace (which obviously wasn’t worthless) for himself, but with it came an incredibly specific (and, I must say, infantile) curse: whoever takes the necklace will be castrated. Sounds like it was ordered by one of those twelve year old Pharoahs. Sickles understandably calls bullshit on the whole story, and heads to get the necklace. Cling tries to stop him and gets accidentally stabbed in the stomach for his troubles. Oops. Cling was a lying prick though, and Sickles quickly formulates a scheme of his own: place the hedge-trimmers in Enoch’s cage, framing him for the murder, grab the necklace, and get the fuck out of Dodge. But as getting the necklace off the mummy proves to be harder than he expected, Enoch sees him molesting his love and jumps to her defense, cutting his dick off with the hedge trimmers. Which brings the mummy to life somehow. We’re past bizarre territory here, so let’s call her a Dick Activated Corpse and try not to linger on it.
Meanwhile, it’s showtime. Mr. Feeley’s giving his spiel to another captivated crowd. Maybe his heart’s in it, maybe it isn’t. The world of carnival barkers is rarely explored, but I can only imagine a high burn-out rate. He’s such a pro, though, you’d never know the difference. He announces Enoch to the crowd, but lo and behold, he’s not in his cage. He quickly diverts the audience’s attention to the mummy, but that turns out even worse. Instead of a well-preserved Egyptian slave girl who’s been dead for 2,000 years, it’s Sickles body, only a few minutes dead, with a pair of hedge-trimmers stuck in the hole where his dick used to be. So sayeth the dark curse of the Sun God. No one knows what happened, and don’t find out until the police discover a cave Enoch has been hiding out in. He’s lying dead, in bed, next to the mummy. After all this, he just didn’t want to die a virgin. And the prove of their disgusting disgusting love is sitting on a table: a baby Crypt Keeper.
It’s not a bad episode, but the whole thing is approached from a very basic level, and we don’t spend enough time with Enoch for it to really be his story, so all the work is for nothing. I admire the restraint and film-making prowess at hand, but this is a story about a retarded mutant cutting a man’s dick off so he can fuck a mummy. Restraint is the last thing that’s needed.
DOES IT HATE WOMEN?
The only woman in the entire episode is the fat lady. It may not be body positive, but it ain’t lady negative.
ALSO WORTH NOTING:
*Let’s talk about that Cryptkeeper origin bullshit. It was obviously an afterthought, and it’s only an origin in the strictest sense of the word. And even that doesn’t make sense. If these are Tales From The Crypt, it always made sense that the Crypt Keeper was a real person who died and became a corpse. Instead he’s born a corpse? Does that make him alive or dead? Is the Crypt Keeper a zombie? And the less time you spend thinking about Enoch hunched over, hammering away at a mummy’s drying husk, the better.
*Hedge-Trimmers? Who’s trimming hedges at this carnival?
*The second meta episode in a row! This season aired in 1991, but the post-modern winks almost feel like they’re from later on in the decade.
*It was this episode I realized that Ricky Gervais’ laugh is almost identical to the Crypt Keeper’s. Once you hear it, you can’t unhear it.
WORST CRYPT KEEPER JOKE:
“If only they lived long enough to see me become a star. We didn’t even get a chance to play hide and go shriek together!”
The way Crypt celebrates Carny Horror is laudable. It’s a subgenre they come back to a lot, and even on what is ultimately a middle of the road episode, there’s a Carnivale vibe here that just makes it fun to watch. I wish it had a little more scale to it, or mystery (I initially thought Dr. Kling would end up being something akin to Bradbury’s Autumn People, but he’s just a scumbag. Still, Mark Rolston is pretty cool in this). And even though the last thing this series needed was an origin for the Crypt Keeper, it moves briskly and looks distinctive enough to be solid. A lot of inoffensively silly gruesomeness and it clears the table for some of the most interesting episodes of the season.